Pick a path that’s more personal

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In The Writer’s Path, by Todd Walton and Mindy Toomay, writers get a few exercises (among many in the book) that use the letter form. Letters are more intimate, a way to get at style and voice that might be escaping you in third person writing, or the constraints of writing a novel, or a story, instead of simply telling a tale.

The book says that “the difference between stories written for publication and [those] written as a letter to a friend… may have no technical difference whatsoever. But the difference in our sense of love and trust for the people who might see or hear our words is enormous.”

So in one exercise we practiced tonight in the Writer’s Workshop, we wrote a letter to a friend about an interesting person in our lives, or in our stories. The writing came out with extra voice, compressed detail that did not seem forced, vivid images, and no affectation. On a revision, you might be able to use this writing inside a story or novel itself. At the least, it gives you a grip on voice for a narrator, as well as character details that are most important.

Letting voice lead your body out of block

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John Lee tells us in Writing from the Body that our throats can bottle up what we want to say in our writing. He has an exercise he suggests to clear our throats, so they are not “knotted with unspoken dreams and uncried tears.”

Yell and shout from deep in your belly into a pillow, Lee says, sending all that blocked energy out of your throat. After you rest your voice an hour, you’ll notice your voice has dropped a register.

He says by repeating this exercise you can clear the unspoken words from your throat and find your voice and writing are both deeper, and with more power. It reminds me of the mornings after I’ve been to a great game, basketball or baseball, shouting out loud among a crowd for several hours. I interview people the next day and tape the conversations, then play them back later and notice how much deeper my voice has gone. And yes, so goes the writing for that day.

Lee adds that “our greater voice in writing occurs naturally, when we are off guard, writing with a certain simplicity of mind.” That’s what we work to create in our meetings at the Writer’s Workshop, using our AWA exercises to switch off the left brain and get to the heart of the words we were born to voice.

Lifting stories off a floor plan

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Here’s an exercise designed to get a writer thinking about history, daring prose and point of view. Draw out the floor plan for a house in your life. Simple, not complex drawing, but include every room you can recall.

Now that you have your floor plan, take 20 minutes to write a story about an event that took place in that house. Positive, negative, scary, surprising. Something significant that happened in that floor plan.

Write the story from the point of view of the house. Let the house speak as if it knows what’s happening only from what it can hear the occupants say, or see what they do.

If this is a house from your childhood, so much the better. The writing has a chance to be more daring, truthful. Don’t worry about what your parents or your siblings will say about your writing. Everything that has happened in your life is your story to tell. Your version is just as truthful as anyone else’s.

In the safe environment we create in The Writer’s Workshop, following the AWA methods, you can push down into the deepest part of your memories, the writing that is not therapy, but theraputic. It can begin with a sketch of a building, one that has stories to tell over many years. The exercise is a way of making the old adage come alive: If these walls could talk…

First off, find out what to write about

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Journals can act as a good tool for writers, keeping your pen moving like lifting weights in the gym. The best kind of journaling, according to Robert Ohlen Butler, is a description of the sensations during an emotional moment of your day before you sit down to write. First thing in the morning, if you can.

This kind of prep writing is vital to knowing what makes your writing’s heart beat. This morning I practiced a journaling exercise from Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. She says that the essential thing to writing is to write about something you really care about. How to know? Make some lists.

Pick big emotions, according to playwright Claudia Johnson, who Burroway quotes in the chapter “Whatever Works” (Humor me here, while I share my own answers)

What makes you angry? Bullying, elitism, being shut out, cruel criticism, injustice.

What are you afraid of? Being abandoned, becoming irrelevant, loss of my mental and physical faculties, heights.

What do you want? Love and acceptance of who I am, supportive relationships with friends, peace and beauty from nature, the reward of service, unexpected joy, to lead, teach and nurture

What hurts? Being excluded, dashed expectations, disrespect for my aspirations, watching someone I love endure pain, being distrusted

What really changed you? My Army service, Dad’s suicide, drugs and then arrest, becoming a father, divorce from Lisa, then leaving my son’s home when he was 6, finding a partner for the rest of my life.

Who really changed you? Jim Lindsey, my first real community newspaper editor. Shawn Hare, an actor in the Melodrama Theatre. My son Nick. John Wilson, magazine owner. Jim Hoadley, my counsellor and “provisional governor.” My wife Abby.

If all this sounds theraputic, confessional, intimate, it should. “Those will be areas to look to for stories, whether or not the stories are autobiographical,” Burroway says. Some time back I wrote a short story called “Two Guys,” about partners in a New York City hot dog cart business. They were breaking up. Underneath the drama and the characters was the reality of seeing my collaboration with my wife in business start to unravel. I wanted a literary journal. She wanted yoga. I never ran a hot dog cart, but the emotions of a dissolving partnership felt the same.

Burroway reminds us that novelist Ron Carlson says

“I always write from my own experiences, whether I’ve had them or not.”

Found objects, remembered city

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Over the weekend at The Writer’s Workshop we held the second Saturday Sampler, a meeting long enough to provide time for many more exercises than the average weekly group meeting. A Sampler doesn’t have a manuscript response session, so it’s more than five hours of writing and reading.

Oh, and there’s brunch and lunch, too.

On Saturday we had time to dip into our basket of found objects, items like ancient measurement rulers, Dr. Pepper original bottles and chalkboard erasers. A single matchbox from a New Orleans hotel, the St. Ann, unlocked a little scene for me of two newlywed characters from Viral Times. The scene was post-Katrina, in a New New Orleans trying to make it back to destination status.

Objects led all of us to good, surprising writing. It’s like having a focal point to study while you practice a balance pose in yoga. Your conscious mind is given an object to build writing around, and you roll up your windowshades to let the imagination spill out of you.

Listen to a Verb with Verve

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Deep at the heart of our Writer’s Workshop practices lies reading. Out loud, so you can hear your writing voice and feel what you meant while putting those words on paper. Readings are a significant part of being a writer. The ability to perform a work can make it stand out. Bringing it to the level you want involves reading it, at least for yourself.

If you enjoy reading of written work, I can recommend Selected Shorts, the public radio icon that puts stories from the likes of Kate Chopin, James Thurber and Raymond Carver in the mouths of seasoned actors. But for a more genuine experience, have a listen at Verb, voted by the Library Journal as one of the best magazines of 2005.

Verb.org is also a very different kind of magazine. It arrives on a CD, since it’s an aural take on stories. Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer winner, reads from one of his novels in Verb’s first issue. You can have a listen to that and other excerpts for free at the Verb podcast Web page, www.verb.org/podcast.html

Making the writing your own with idiom

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Tonight in our Writer’s Workshop meeting we came upon a use of idiom in writing, an exercise where we were invited to use three words in a 10 minutes of writing about a secret. I managed to use a couple of them in an idiomatic sense. They didn’t mean exactly what we’d consider their most common definitions.

Idiomatic writing can be a nice bridge into style, or trap door into cliche. When a character hits the wall on something — like mine did in my writing — we’re getting close to cliche. (“Hit the wall” doesn’t have an entry in The Dictionary of Cliches, but it might in a future edition). You can, however, use wall as a way of describing something sheer, vertical, encompassing — anything other than a part of a room or a building.

Idiom’s root tells us a lot about the power of “a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words.” The word comes from the Greek idiousthai, to “make one’s own.”

Rewrite in a row, right away

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Here’s an exercise I prodded myself to do on Tuesday night. It’s the usual evening that I’ve met with my friend Mike, who’s also working on a novel. Together we have trod the path of the writing exercise, many months before I took my Amherst Writers & Artists training to lead next week’s workshop.

Borders on Great Hills has been the meeting place on these Tuesdays for Mike and I. The bookshop stands in the shadow of a much larger Barnes and Noble across the intersection, but Borders has got a much better cafe — quieter, with more seats and decent sized tables. We’ve met there for more than a year of Tuesdays, sitting in the hard-backed chairs, chatting and then writing longhand, then reading aloud to each other.

Enough of the color. Here’s the exercise:

Write a simple scene, a straightforward event. A character looks for a table in a crowded cafe, trips and manages to keep her food from spilling, gets embarrassed as she looks around, sees a smiling person at an otherwise empty table.

The work is to write it five completely different ways — consider changes of style, tone, sentence structure, voice, psychic distance. Make the styles radically different, with the same story. That’s the point: to make them very different. Keep each version short, up to eight sentences. Pick a single kind of narration and stick to it. Don’t fiddle with perspective. Fiddle with style.

Keep the total number of words to 350 or so.

Fiction is thought stylized, according to Brian Kitely, who included the above exercise in his fine book The 3 AM Epiphany. If he’s right, then style is essential to good writing. Rewriting through five different styles, one right in a row, sure gives you alternative ideas on how to express that thought.